Legend has it that University Hall is haunted. That's the story anyway. Maybe you believe it, perhaps you don't — but it's a safe bet you'll encounter the lore on the Providence Ghost Tour, a popular weekend walking tour to places of murders, suicides and reported spooky sightings on the city's historic East Side.
Similar tours have blossomed around the country, from the antebellum south to colonial New England to the west, with guides marketing the macabre tales of their cities to those with an interest in the supernatural — or simply eager for a cheap spook during Halloween season.
"It's not as hocus-pocus as it was before where you had people going around trying to scare you. It's trying to be a little bit more factual," said Mike Gertrudes, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who founded the Providence Ghost Tour this year with his friend Courtney Edge, also 26.
Tour organizers, explaining the industry's popularity, say people are increasingly comfortable about discussing their paranormal sensations. The supernatural also figures prominently in contemporary television and film — think "The Sixth Sense" — and technology like digital cameras and camera phones gives believers hope they can capture an orb or apparition and see it appear instantly on their screens.
"I really think the people are fascinated by the supernatural, the life afterwards, the spirit, what happens to our spirit," said Jim McCabe, whose New England Ghost Tours offers walking tours in Boston and bus trips to other places in Massachusetts.
McCabe's tour includes stops at the Omni Parker House Hotel, where he points out a mirror on the mezzanine floor that Charles Dickens rehearsed in front of before literary readings. The ghost of the long-dead hotel founder, Harvey Parker, is said to still tend after his guests.
The tour also capitalizes on the city's rich Revolutionary War history with a visit to the Central Burying Ground, where McCabe says the remains of hundreds of redcoats were uncovered in the late 19th century.
McCabe's business started in the mid-1990s with bus tours to Salem and Marblehead, Mass., on Boston's North Shore. It has since expanded, operating from May through November, and attracts more women than men.
"I think women are more spiritualistic," McCabe said. "They're more attuned to the spiritual world than men are."
In Providence, on a recent wind-whipped and cold Friday evening, about 40 customers assemble for the start of the tour in a park at the base of the East Side. They huddle round a statue of Roger Williams, Rhode Island's founding father, and learn that his remains lie below.
The guides offer a dose of deadpan humor. Participants are warned to stay on the sidewalks lest they get hit by a car and become another ghost. And as the group ambles through the cold, Gertrudes, mustering the exuberance of a football coach rallying his players, hollers out, "Are you excited?"
The tour, which runs Fridays through Sundays, lasts about an hour and 45 minutes. Several spooky sites are dormitories at the Rhode Island School of Design, including one residence hall that is said to have spirits roaming the basement and a parlor with a television that turns itself on and off.
Students who live in the building report that it's "very, very haunted," Edge tells the group, though she confesses she found nothing haunted herself when she ventured into the basement.
"It's creepy, definitely," she noted.
Other locations are less spooky than historical. The tour, for instance, stops outside a Brown library that houses three books bound with human skin; the Providence Athenaeum, where Edgar Allen Poe courted his paramour, Sarah Helen Whitman; and the sprawling University Hall.
Robert Emlen, the Brown curator and senior lecturer in the American Civilization department, said he was skeptical that University Hall — dating from 1770 — could be haunted by Revolutionary War soldiers since the building was gutted and rebuilt several decades ago.
"It doesn't sound like a good place for ghosts to me if everything has been ripped out," Emlen said.
Many customers are eager to recount their brushes with the paranormal or confess their beliefs in ghosts. Others shrug off the experience as pure fun.
"I believe in some of them, but some of them I think are made up by college kids," said Bobby Pelland, 13, of Cranston.
Benjamin Potter, 26, of Woonsocket, said he was keeping an open, but skeptical, mind.
"I've seen things that I don't really understand," Potter said. "You kind of question it, but it can always be explained — shadows, trick of light, that kind of thing."
Gertrudes and Edge say they logged 300 hours of research on Providence history, slogging through newspaper articles and death and census records. They also distributed leaflets asking neighborhood residents if they had any personal encounters with the supernatural or knew of any haunted buildings.
That research, they said, informs the tour — and they vouch for all the history presented.
As for the hauntings, Edge explains afterward, "We'll give you the stories and then it's your call. At the end of the day it's completely your call."
Tickets for the Providence tour cost $13 in person, $10 if bought in advance.